To some the water-carriers, to others the conductor of the orchestra, we'll let you decide
Todo tiene su final/Nada dura para siempre
Tenemos que recordar/Que no existe en eternidad
(Everything has its end/Nothing lasts forever
We have to remember/That there is no eternity)
Xabi Alonso is, by any measure, a very handsome man. The depth of my feelings, however, are not triggered by the sight of his well-chiseled jawline or his impassive expression. It is often a ten-yard pass to Sergio Ramos. Occasionally, it is a seventy-yard missile seeking out a streaking Cristiano Ronaldo. The reaction is invariably the same. Beautiful. Brilliant. Uh! Yes.
Yet it is difficult to decide whether he makes all the difference or none at all. He is the sort of player who defies simple classification. To the casual observer, he is static compared to the other outfield players on the pitch, passing the ball five yards sideways or launching a sixty-yard pass up field with the same sort of careful nonchalance. He does not yell, he rarely gestures, and is rarely the focus of spectator attention in the match. Had he not decided to grow out a distinctive red beard, the sneaking suspicion that he may be a cyborg, or at least heavily medicated, would be difficult to escape.
Alonso's humanity, of course, is beyond doubt. One only needs to watch his early displays as the teenaged captain of Real Sociedad or the look of nauseous terror on his face before scoring the equalizing goal in the 2005 Champions League Final to know that he possesses a fierce competitive spirit and emotes like the rest of us. So much of Alonso's mystique, however, is steeped in the unfussy way he goes about his business that his humanity seems improbable.
It must annoy opposing players that he always looks so composed, that he never seems tired or particularly animated. When Nigel de Jong planted his cleats into Alonso's chest during the 2010 World Cup Final, Alonso winced, received his treatment, and played on for another hour. It was a remarkable incident at a remarkable moment for all sorts of reasons, yet it faded into the mire of what became a turgid but just Spanish victory. In hindsight, it seems unlikely that de Jong purposefully chose the most important match of their lives as the right time to glimpse the soul beneath the impervious façade. Given their respective reputations, however, one cannot help but wonder.
In Spanish, a defensive midfielder is often called 'volante de contencion' or 'volante de salida'. The former refers to the ball-winning duties of the defensive midfielder and the latter to providing an outlet for under-pressure teammates. The terms themselves are more descriptions of the duties performed by a defensive midfielder than distinct roles—any mediocentro defensivo worth a damn must do both. The important term to keep in mind here is volante . In other usages, it translates as 'rudder' or 'steering wheel', and it is an apt way to describe Alonso's style of play. He, along with the great Andrea Pirlo, is the epitome of the concept of the deep-lying playmaker: a stoic yet vital piece of an organic machine, giving direction and control to the boat lain before it. They can tackle (Pirlo is especially underrated defensively), but are most exceptional at turning defense to attack in an instant, starting counterattacks with incisive long-range passes from a place that allows them to follow the play and offer themselves as an outlet for under-pressure attackers up ahead.
To be sure, there are other talented players out there who fulfill this particular role. But Pirlo and Alonso share a particularly unfazed demeanor that makes it easy to imagine one of them in a captain's hat, chinos, and boat shoes (red socks), silently steering a lifeboat through the night. They make their passengers feel relaxed enough to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa while swaddled beneath wool blankets to protect against the chill of the icy waters. They are distinct because they offer more than a mere able hand. They offer imagination, warmth, and incisive passing without sacrificing defensive prowess or positioning. More than anything, they offer an aura: Look, I know I'm a badass. You know I'm a badass. There's no need to go around bleating it like an overexcited sheep, so let's just play, OK? Excuse me a moment [pings 55 yard pass to a streaking player down the right touchline in stride]. Sorry about that. Would you like some cocoa? You sure? Here you go. Don't mention it. [executes inch-perfect tackle, plays ball back to keeper] Feelings are not everything, but when everything else is right, they are what differentiate friends from lovers. I like Jeremy Toulalan, but I burn a candle each Saturday for Alonso's safe passage. It is not rational, but it is right.
Claude Makelele was not a glamorous sea-captain of any sort. His affable mannerisms and ever-present smile belied a combative, negative style of play that on first examination was far more destructive than constructive. This is not a bad thing. His precise, successful tackling and harassing of opposition attacks was awesome enough for unimaginative EPL commentators to consider the defensive midfielder position the “Makelele Role.” We should not judge him for the sins of others, however, as he was more than worthy of distinction. Nevertheless, one must ask when reflecting upon his career: what exactly was he? To answer that, we must first ask: what is beauty?
Beauty is subjective and encompasses a broad expanse of life that includes the aesthetically pleasing but also that which is less glorious to the eye yet engrossing (and engorging). By that standard, Claude was indisputably beautiful. Watching him break up play and quietly dictate the tempo of a match was in its own way as cathartic and fascinating a spectacle as the constant creation of Xavi. Opponents and fans alike realized—usually well after the fact, if at all—that he, as much as Zidane (blasphemy!) or Vieira or Lampard, was running the show. Or, more precisely, he made the show possible.
It was a beauty of a more subtle sort than that of someone like Pirlo, whose understated play exists in parallel with the immediacy of his colossal talent and glorious, flowing locks. Affable Claude, pleading his case with the smirking referee (“But I had the ball :-D”), hovering around the two center-backs, was not a man whose play inspired ecstatic hosannas. Instead, he imbued the viewer with profound respect accumulated over time, his total competence refined by intelligence and maturity to art. Sometimes, like Clint Eastwood's character in The Bridges of Madison County, the situation at hand requires a character with a fine (but not necessarily delicate) touch refined by experience and diligence. Makelele was always ready to offer just that, and for this he is rightly exalted.
Yet Florentino Perez, the President of Real Madrid, said the following after refusing to give Makelele a raise to a salary more comparable to his galactico teammates and selling him to Chelsea:
'We will not miss Makelele . His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three meters. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten'
There are many truths in Perez's statement, and yet he got the most important piece of information perfectly wrong: Madrid missed Makelele, badly. The galacticos project withered and died without the player Zidane deemed “the engine.” A reworking of Sir Alex Ferguson's defense of Juan Sebastian Veron, a deep-lying midfielder not noted for his defensive qualities, is a fitting tribute: “[Makelele's] a great fucking player. Youse [Perez and assorted detractors] are all fucking idiots.”
Why are we stupid? What did we miss? What made Makelele such a great player? To start, he knew himself. This is vital: self-knowledge and self-awareness are often overlooked by the exceedingly talented, but for those with more prosaic skill sets, such qualities differentiate between mediocrity and excellence. He knew himself, knew his role, and his grin hid a resolute determination to succeed. In addition to his psychological strengths, he possessed outstanding positional awareness, was a superb tackler until he lost the ability to accelerate in his late thirties, and his short frame served as an asset in tight quarters as his low center of gravity helped give him balance and excellent strength while over the ball. He worked through a checklist of sorts: 1) Don't get caught out. 2) Get the ball, or, failing that, slow the attack down by getting in the way somehow. 3) If I have the ball, pass it to a nearby, open teammate. 4) Trail the run of play if someone needs an outlet. 5) Repeat as needed.
He was brilliant, then, because he transcended his limitations and consistently laid waste to opposing teams' attacking schema in a campaign of destruction as subtle as Roy Keane's was spectacular. One can make the case that he was a rough equivalent of the Buddha, achieving fulfilling and transcendent enlightenment through methodical reflection on his qualities and an intense but even-keeled diligence. It's a stupid and ultimately useless analogy, but the last part of that has merit. Think of Makélélé as a night watchman, performing the unglamorous but vital task of protecting the extremely expensive modern art from the marauding playmaker-cum-art thieves of the world. A base soul like of Florentino Perez could never hope to comprehend such matters.
Then again, unlimited resources can buy one all the 'understanding' one can muster in this world. One of Perez's earliest purchases during his second presidency of Real Madrid was none other than Xabi Alonso. Perhaps in the intervening years Perez realized that to build the world's finest luxury liner, one must first find someone who can actually drive the fucking thing. Alonso, captain's hat pulled taut (never jaunty) over his casually parted hair, is now the navigator of the good ship Merengue, steering it stolidly through the tumultuous seas of football at the highest level. That this ship is in good hands is beyond doubt. But is there anyone guarding our hearts?
We all have preferences. They arise from impulses, but also from well-considered needs. There is the specter of long-range thought of future needs, and then there is what we need right now. There is beauty in both order and chaos, simplicity and elaboration, and there is a certain sense of triumph in finding love in an unexpected place. My gaze tracks to the area in front of the center-backs in the hope that I will find a new avatar of admiration, another who can make me shudder in admiration like Redondo or burst into guffaws of joy like Claude or Xabi. It is a position of both perpetual hope and pathetic longing.
Another can come along and inspire me with skillful insight and ball retention deep in midfield. In fact, there will almost certainly be another. But they too will atrophy and disappear, perhaps reappearing as a specter in a pea coat on a sideline or as a bloated bureaucrat or club ambassador awkwardly pulling out team names in a Europa League draw ceremony. It is a reminder that while beauty is eternal, our ability to create and behold it is not. You and I don't know when the end will come—we cannot speak of what we do not know. We do know, however, that our time is finite, and theirs is ever more so. So my eyes drift to the backline, perhaps sneaking a quick glance at a Redondo compilation that will likely make me tear but not cry. There is no eternity, just love and elegance and the certainty that there will be a point when it will be too late to watch and wonder. I'll enjoy it while I can.
Photo Credit: Ben Sutherland